Thursday, August 15, 2013

Is Stoicism Self-Help?

If you go to any bookstore today, odds are you'll have some trouble finding the philosophy books. They're sometimes buried near metaphysics, religion, and New Age books for some reason. However, seek out self-help books and you'll have no trouble. They're everywhere.

Of course, these books are a joke. If they aren't banal for what they're saying, they're overreaching: buy this book and all your woes will be solved! Have all the friends you want. Make all the money you want. All that you want will be gotten! JUST BUY THIS BOOK! They can help you in every area of life. But we know better. After all, just how many books make same claims? And look how miserable most people are.

But should we who use Stoicism – or any philosophy of life, really – be so smug in thinking we have a leg up on these people? I mean, there are similarities:
  • Both self-help gurus and philosophers say they can help in every area of life.
  • Both seek to make people happier.
  • Both tend to repeat the same points over and over.
  • Both preach a lot, but have a hard time proving they live it.
  • Both, save for a few differences, tend to agree with rivals.
Yikes. It's almost like self-help is the bastard child of the philosophies of life and good old-fashioned money making. I mean, if I took out all the references to Seneca, Epictetus, all the Stoics, and the history they often speak of, repackaged the philosophy as pop psychology, I'm sure I'd have a best seller.

And yet, having mired myself in self-help books since my early teens, I can confidently say that only Stoicism makes any impact on my life. And, not only that, stays with me.

The question is, why?

Now, I don't think this will be a popular view, but I think philosophies of life are sort of like the Greek and Roman versions for self-help. Each one had proof that they were right (even the Skeptics, living up to their namesake everywhere else, believed in their proof). All of them promised some sort of happiness. And, yeah, all the other above-mentioned things.

So what's so different?

One, you could live with the person teaching the philosophy. You could watch them screw up and see if what they preached helped them in their difficult moments. Two, and this is the most important thing, it wasn't about always getting what you want.

Stoicism pretty much tells you outright that not very much is within our control. Actually, except for our thoughts, nothing is in our control. It's the honesty: there's nothing you can do about most of your life, but you can control how you take it.

Take in contrast self-help: all you have to be is more (confident, organized, decluttered, whatever). Master only one thing in your life and the rest of it will be magic.

Another is just what is meant by the “good life”. When people speak of the good life today, what they really mean is more money, more stuff, more free time to do whatever you want. But when none of this stuff comes your way, people are often left floundering. You could be sweating blood following what these gurus want you to do and you'll failure will be chalked up to not trying hard enough. Even supposing you did get all that you wanted, no one tells you what you really shouldn't do with it. As a result, you stand a good chance of squandering all that hard work.

Now, the philosophical good life is different. It's not about getting more money or even ahead in life. It's about becoming a more virtuous life. Unlike materiel stuff and thinking happy thoughts, virtues can help better guide your actions, so that no matter your lot in life, you know you're doing not only the best you can, but are always improving yourself.

I'll admit it: I've neither of these good lives. But I can say I'm closer to a philosophical good life than a material one. And having pursued stuff for a long time, I can say that at least with Stoicism – call it self-help or philosophy – I know I'm becoming a fair better person than any of those gurus could have ever made me.

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